"Calamityville (Detail)." Photo by Clif Garboden, December 2010
MIKE MILIARD (Boston Phoenix, 1999-'09)
I spent almost 10 years working within 25 feet of Clif Garboden. I've seen him when he was happy (face aglow at the surprise visit of this or that former employee) and when he was angry (glowering after the unfathomable reelection of George W. Bush). I've heard him mutter murderously at FileMaker Pro as he tried to troubleshoot some database malfunction, and yelp with exasperation at uncooperative HTML and mutinous style sheets. I've heard him shout when his phone would ring at inopportune times -- a cartoonist might stylize it "@#$%&!&" -- only to hear his voice soften within a nanosecond when he realized the person on the other end of the line was someone he actually liked: "Oh, hey, hi!!" I've pawed through the Phoenix's filing cabinets for old black and white file photos, admiring the stuff Clif was there to shoot: Howard Zinn during Vietnam, busing-riven Southie, Keith Richards in a hotel room with a K2-sized pile of grass. I've studied his "Hot Dots" TV column for its subtle snark and brilliant economy of words. I've nodded in sad solidarity at his righteous polemics. I've marveled at the funny tour-de-force of fake band names -- Teeming Plovers, Backslap Anthology, Tarzan and the Ant Men -- that would make Bob Pollard blanch. I've been the recipient of his deft, delicate story edits: educational and invariably edifying. I've been privileged to be on his e-mail list, which brightened many holidays: it might be a scornful forward of an alt-weekly piece about Christian haunted house ("Happy Halloween from the drooling halfwit set") or, more often, welcome photos from the Christmas tradition of "Calamityville," Clif's tchotchke-built table-top tableau. (Cue the snowball-fighting scamps and bell-ringing choirboys, overrun by plagues of frogs and spiders.) I've been entertained by his mordant wit. I've been humbled by his fierce devotion to good journalism and the power it can wield. And I will always be thankful for knowing him and his big, passionate, generous heart.
SHARON STEEL (Time Out New York)
I was incredibly lucky to get started at an alternative weekly. To be taught about writing by editors like Clif Garboden, who were tough and patient, who encouraged me but never let me feel sorry for myself, who loved the weight behind every word and wanted me to, also. They let me learn from my mistakes -- and I made a lot. I still do.
DAN KENNEDY (Blogger and Associate Professor, Northeastern University)
Clif was simultaneously a caustic, profane social critic and an unabashed idealist -- two qualities that I think are often found together. His 2004 outburst following the election results, "Screw You, America"is a classic example of the former. I remembered every word of it when I re-read it this morning -- it's that good. His essay for the Phoenix's 40th-anniversary issue was an example of the latter. Clif genuinely, deeply believed that we in the alternative press were doing God's work in holding powerful institutions accountable. It was a bracing idea, and something to ponder when the day-to-day frustrations of journalism were getting us down. Clif's contributions to the Phoenix were legion, ranging from his hilarious "Hot Dots" television listings to his leadership in the creation and growth of ThePhoenix.com -- a site regularly recognized for its excellence by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, an organization of which he was a past president. Indeed, he did so much that it's sometimes forgotten he was also a first-rate photographer. When Howard Zinn died a little over a year ago, Clif let me publish a photo he had taken of Zinn during a 1967 debate over the Vietnam War. The richness of tone and lighting is striking. As Clif once explained of his student days at the BU News:
In the darkroom, we pushed standard black-and-white film to wantonly high speeds with specialty developing concoctions so we could shoot everything with available light -- imparting an atmospheric, realistic look to our pictures and abandoning the flat, grain-less, over-lit direct-flash intrusiveness of standard press photography.
The lives of all of us who were fortunate to know him were enriched by the experience. He possessed a great soul, and we are all going to miss him deeply. I already do.
ELSA DORFMAN (Photographer)
Clif loved photography and was an astute photographer himself, going back to the Seventies, and to Ray Mungo and Peter Simon. He also was a discerning writer about photographers' work.
I still remember Clif visiting my studio in 2003. Of course, we talked about 'Seventies Boston as if it were yesterday. And when he wrote about his visit and our laughs, he nailed my work. I learned from Clif what it was that I was doing.
KRISTEN LOMBARDI (CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY)
Incredibly sad news about one of my former top editors at the Boston Phoenix, Clif Garboden, who had been battling cancer for quite some time. He was so caustic and wry, he'd never allow for a tear, but geez ... Glad I knew you and worked under you, Clif. You made the Phoenix fun, were an inspiration for me in my cub days in Worcester -- and, boy, could you write. Journalism has lost a committed soul. Clif's right, he's on his way to heaven.
Clif was not exactly the quintessential ink-stained wretch, since he was much more than a cut above. But ink-stained he was, a rarity in his field, a man of deep understanding and generosity of spirit, an essential beacon for me (a professional lawyer but amateur journalist) and a source of wise counsel always.
I loved his "Hot Dots" column, and found the same playful, sardonic wit behind his desk whenever I came into the Phoenix. He was the soul of kindness and thoughtfulness, answering my questions or looking something up, or, since I was a freelancer without a desk in the office, finding me a free computer, and never keeping me waiting if he could help it. I often thought he was a kind of backbone of the Phoenix, the one main reservoir of information and lore. I liked him a lot. I'll miss him a lot.
FRANCIS J. CONNOLLY (Senior Analyst, Kiley & Company; Boston Phoenix, 1985-'89)
Clif was a profoundly decent man in a business that rarely rewards decency.
His technical skill as an editor was formidable, and his deadpan wit was legendary. But what I remember most about Clif was his sense of calm: when the moment demanded it he was always the calmest person in the room, the one grownup amidst a storm of raging egos and frantic agenda-pushers.
I wish I had learned, in my 54 years, one-tenth of what Clif always seemed to know about how to act. His grace under fire, his courage in the face of terrible adversity, and his fierce devotion to his family and friends are a lesson -- a humbling lesson -- to us all.
DANNY SCHECHTER (The News Dissector)
I knew Cliff for many years as a serious and talented writer and editor. What distinguished him in my eyes was the range of his interests and knowledge. He had the kind of media memory that always led to his being able to add what's often missing in media -- context and background. His long career at the Phoenix speaks to his commitment to alternative media and its role as a check on the kind of pablum that often passes for serious coverage.He fought hard for the living and for his life. I will miss him and I am sure most for his colleagues feel the same way.
Andy Olstein (Hired Clif at Boston Phoenix)
The death of a colleague the same age and dubious medical history as you is sad and disturbing enough. But when he's as memorable as Clif and you haven't kept up with him for half a lifetime, there's the mourning of regrets in addition to the man. That lasts as long as it takes to imagine Garbo's reaction to it, which would probably reference the Great God of Irony followed by, "Now get back to work."
I spent an eventful two years at the Phoenix, '74-'76, and Clif, our jack-of-all-freelancers, was my go-to guy. I was supplements editor, and the goal, not always shared, was to turn another excuse for advertising into another excuse for advertising and required reading. If memory serves, Marcia Orovitz introduced Clif as primarily a photographer, but it seemed an utter waste not to use the Hot Dots king as a writer--or more accurately, a sensibility. I stole mine from Esquire, but Clif's was organic. He was smarter, wittier and better-read than anyone not named Richard Rosen and was a trove of seemingly useless information, the breadth and depth of which made him perfect for what we were trying to do. Mercifully, he was also dependable. He not only made deadlines, he made them on very short notice, saving my ass countless times.
Eventually, we were allowed to expand the "service" function of the supplements to include new ones like Media (RIP: Dave O'Brian), suburbia (RIP: Alan Lupo, Michael Ryan) and, infamously, Humor. The latter featured guides to swanboat wrestling and bathing your cat, swipes at James Joyce and dharma bums. Thanks to some politically incorrect fur, we transformed Ande Zellman, a receptionist then, into Tiffany Lipschitz and put her in an ad seeking donations for the Save-A-Princess Foundation ("Be a SAP, save a JAP"). But the piece de resistance was Clif's deadpan skewering of psychobabble. He (or maybe the equally indispensable Jerry Berndt) shot four portraits that illustrated Clif's war--"the Dance of Remorse," I think he called it--between the It-Self, Them-Self, Me-Self and Self-Self. When I read his talmudic distinction between the last two, I wet myself. If someone can find it, it should be added to the Garbo Collection.
After reading all the heartfelt stuff here, I am especially proud to have played a role in making Clif an editor. Not by teaching or example, I hasten to add--by fiat. When I left the paper in '76, I got to pick my successor. The choice was obvious. That Clif blossomed in his first W-2 gig and regarded it more as calling than job is not surprising. That he lasted so long in a single environment, with undiminished focus and passion, is astonishing. In the '70s the Phoenix was well-stocked with talent who would later move on to become stars in New York, Washington and L.A. But seeing this outpouring makes it hard to imagine anyone from that group having a more lasting impact on staff and readers than the star who remained in Boston. Also can't imagine I'm the only one who feels the sense of community and empowerment we had there in our twenties was surpassed by any other time in our lives. Unfailingly kind and quietly subversive, Clif was a key element of that. We didn't know from Clif the Curmudgeon.
I had a career in magazines and television, having the good fortune to work in both media with my hero. Harold Hayes did not invent the modern American magazine, but at Esquire he surely perfected it. In the '60s he used Mailer, Wolfe and Talese to birth the New Journalism while "smiling through the apocalypse," the title of his anthology of the decade's best writing. I don't know if Clif saw that book, but he must have known that the alt-press gospel he preached was rooted in the New Journalism. For me, reading these tributes is realizing that, to several younger generations, Clif became a hero himself; that in him, alternative weeklies--certainly the New England division--found their Harold Hayes.
With these thoughts I watched Clif's surviving-cancer video from last year, then read his heroic hospital blogs, which he worked on till almost the end. As if that weren't enough, he also came up with a poignantly vivid account of his Pittsburgh-to-Boston friendship with Phil Bertoni, who passed in January. Posted a week before Clif's death, "Growing Up Together Apart (or Vice Versa)" might have been unwitting, but it reads like a conscious rendering of his own obituary. Needless to say, as in everything else Garbo took on, he was the best man for the job.
Must end with one of his lines. "Can I miss someone I hadn't seen in three decades?" he wrote in his obit of Mike Ryan. "Absolutely."